The Widows is a damned good mystery well told.
But it is so much more.
If you’re a fan of detective novels, you’re going to love this book, never mind that it’s an historical novel. And that might be enough for some readers. Finding well written, gripping mysteries in the glut of titles pouring into Amazon and onto bookstore shelves can be challenging. I love mysteries, but I’m suffering a bit of fatigue by all the formula-driven plots, and even some of my favorite thriller writers are becoming tiresome.
Not Jess Montgomery. She didn’t phone this tale in. It is a spellbinding novel of crime detection that belies her debut status.
Montgomery’s protagonists, two young widows who find a connection in a dead husband and former lover, are ensnared in a complicated relationship as they set out to find a killer against daunting odds.
That’s the surface story, loosely based on the true account of Ohio’s first female sheriff. Lily Ross is asked to replace her murdered husband as sheriff, and she seizes the opportunity, sensing that if she doesn’t track down his killer, nobody will.
It’s 1924. Women have just won the right to vote, Prohibition has created new opportunities for moonshiners, and in rural, Appalachian Ohio coal miners and their families live in virtual serfdom in an environment so lawless that it is nearly unrecognizable as America.
Lily, newly badged, encounters another woman, Marvena Whitcomb, who she discovers once had a relationship with her dead husband, a secret he never shared. There were other secrets, too, she learns.
This is where a lot of writers would have lapsed into cliché-ridden stereotypes, creating stock characters from central casting. Not here. Lily and Marvena are tough, sophisticated, complex women with a deeply entangled history that each must find ways to cope with and understand. Their emotional maturity and intellectual honesty in dealing with these conflicts are exquisitely drawn by Montgomery, elevating a fine mystery into a work that is both lyrical and literary.
And as the story progresses, and as Lily and Marvena come closer to solving the murder of Lily’s husband, they discover that finding justice isn’t so clean cut when you’re living in a world brimming with corruption.
Winning isn’t just defined by nailing a killer, it’s figuring out how to find justice and live to tell about it.
And if anyone can tell that story, it’s Jess Montgomery.